How Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella disrupted the corporate retreat

Trouble at the off-site?
Trouble at the off-site?
Image: Reuters/Andy Clark
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Anyone who has been to a corporate retreat knows how they inspire both pride and anxiety,  how they can feel like both a burden and a privilege. Afterall, it’s typically only a company’s highest-level employees who get invited to attend an all-expenses-paid trip away from the office, usually to a far more scenic location.

In his new book, Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella reveals his own irreverent attitude toward the corporate retreat, a part of Microsoft’s tradition for as long as he could remember. (Nadella started at the company in 1992, at age 25.)

“One aspect of the off-site really bugged me,” he writes. “Here we were with all this talent, all this bandwidth, and all this IQ in one place just talking at each other in the deep woods. And frankly it seems like most of the talking was about poking holes in each other’s ideas. Enough. I figured it was time to hit refresh and experiment.”

After he became CEO, Nadella switched things up. To begin, he invited new hires from companies that Microsoft had only recently acquired to join in the clubby powwow, and he caught some side-eye for it. He writes:

These new Microsoft leaders were mission-oriented, innovative, born in the mobile-first and cloud-first world. I knew we could learn from their fresh, outside perspective. The only problem was that most of these leaders did not officially qualify to go to the executive retreat given the person’s level in the organization. To make matters worse neither did the manager, or even the manager’s manager. Remember, the retreat had been only for the most senior leaders. Inviting them was not one of my more popular decisions. But they showed up bright-eyed, completely ignorant of the history. They asked questions. They share their own journeys. They pushed us to be better.

Another decision, not universally loved, was scheduling customer visits. “There was more than a little eye rolling and groaning,” Nadella reports. But the next morning, roughly 150 retreaters were split into groups and traveled together in vans to visit clients, including large and small businesses, schools, hospitals, and startups. Each van, Nadella says, carried one “nervous account manager” along with a cross-section of business leaders from a range of company departments, like marketing, engineering, and finance. The vehicles were dispatched across the Puget Sound region.

When they all regrouped for dinner back in the mountains, the employees were assigned tables within remixed groups, and were therefore not able to fall back into their regular circles and—let’s be honest— gripe. Instead, each person was asked to describe their day and discuss where they saw the company’s culture and where it should go. Nadella writes that he expected little engagement, more of a “let’s-get-this-over-with” attitude. “They’d be persnickety” he predicted. Instead, he claims, the conversations went long into the evening.

Nadella’s approach doesn’t address many of the worst things about corporate retreats, including the cost in dollars, the cost in (at least short-term) productivity, and the anxiety generated over the inevitable trust falls. But it’s a start.